A Long, Strange Trip: Leary’s Circus Chronicled

061906 article book marlowe A Long, Strange Trip:  Leary’s Circus ChronicledIn 1959, in Torremolinos, on a break from a failing academic career and a year after the end of his second marriage, Timothy Leary had a sudden attack of a mysterious illness which gave him enormous blisters. On one night of suffering, as he described it in his 1968 autobiography High Priest under the title “Trip 1,” “I died. I let go. Surrendered …. My career, my ambitions, my home …. With a sudden snap, all the ropes of my social self were gone.”

This incident occurred a year before Leary took his first psychedelic drugs in August of 1960, when he was nearly 40. But the pattern that would characterize Leary’s next 35 years as the self-proclaimed “high priest” of LSD—unusual receptivity to extreme experiences combined with reckless ambition—was already well established.

LSD was only the excuse Leary found to turn his peculiar blend of charisma, creativity and self-indulgence into a career that changed American culture. Robert Greenfield’s compulsively readable if sometimes choppy book—the first major biography of Leary and the result of 10 years of research—details the amazing variety of famous people Leary met, the drugs he ingested and the women he bedded over the course of an unlikely 75-year lifespan.

It’s also a powerful argument against the inchoate belief shared by many who have used psychedelics—and I was one—that tripping almost automatically makes you a better, more enlightened person. Though Mr. Greenfield maintains an evenhanded tone, the effect of his accumulation of detail is to show that Timothy Leary was a scumbag—a charming, energetic and inventive scumbag—despite decades of taking LSD.

He was also adept at self-sabotage: Although he made much of his status as a martyr (he was imprisoned for marijuana possession), driving while smoking pot can’t be a good idea when you’re a celebrated advocate of recreational drugs. But Leary had an astonishing ability to land on his feet. Shortly after his nervous breakdown in Torremolinos, Leary—who attended Holy Cross, was forced out of West Point for lying and expelled from the University of Alabama before finally making it to graduate school at Berkeley—talked his way into a lecturer’s appointment at Harvard by espousing “existential psychology.” This meant that the psychologist should observe real-life situations “like a naturalist in the field” and actually engage with the patient, scrapping the customary clinical detachment (detachment was never a Leary trait).

Leary’s introduction to mushrooms occurred in Mexico in the summer after his first year at Harvard. He proclaimed that it changed his life: “I learned more in the six or seven hours of this experience than in all my years as a psychologist.” At the time, a colleague who’d tried mushrooms a few years earlier warned Leary of “the compulsive tendency to run around explaining to everyone about these amazing events.” But Leary was no more able than most people to resist the urge.

What separated Leary from many others who were using psychedelics at the same time was his simpleminded and single-minded advocacy. He supplied the sound bite—“tune in, turn on and drop out”—that the media needed to talk about the new drugs. And Leary never decided that he’d learned what he needed to learn from psychedelics; he never moved on. He tripped regularly for decades, sometimes daily, and also consumed other drugs in great quantity, including alcohol.

He had little interest in research on psychedelics, preferring just to turn on as many people as possible with the notion that the world would somehow right itself once everyone was tripping. He was fired from Harvard not for giving LSD to grad students and prison inmates “to accelerate behavior change” (that was fine by the administration), but for abandoning his classes in March and going to Hollywood.

More importantly for those who believed psychedelics could have great potential in psychotherapy, the Leary circus created a hysteria around LSD that lead to Congress making it illegal and effectively shutting down further research. Aldous Huxley himself worried that Leary’s unqualified support for psychedelics would harm the cause (“I am very fond of Tim—but why, oh why, does he have to be such an ass?”). At this remove, Leary’s irresponsibility is, well, mind-blowing: Some of the kids living on the Millbrook, N.Y., estate where he set up his headquarters in 1963 were dosed with acid weekly; his own son, Jack, was taking enormous doses at 16; and Leary thought nothing of driving on acid.

The record of betrayals is equally astonishing: The same man who had punched his second wife in the face tried to turn in his third wife (who’d helped spring him from his first prison term and who was at the time a fugitive) to the U.S. government in order to get himself out of jail. The same man who in 1970 advocated shooting “a genocidal robot policeman” to pay back the Weather Underground for helping him escape from prison, turned state’s evidence against his devoted defense lawyer four years later. What was that about which way the wind blows?

Leary’s record as a father is abysmal. His daughter Susan died by her own hand shortly after shooting her boyfriend in the head. In his teens and 20’s, Leary’s son Jack was often so drugged as to be incapable of speech.

Fittingly, Leary’s last days (he died of prostate cancer in 1996) were passed in a drugged stupor among strangers seeking to piggyback on his notoriety.

MORE INSPIRING POSSIBILITIES FOR PSYCHEDELIC drug use are suggested by the writer B.H. (Bernard) Friedman’s slim memoir, Tripping. Mr. Friedman and his late wife tripped in the early 60’s with pharmaceutical psilocybin provided by Timothy Leary. The Friedmans were part of a set of New York artists, musicians and haute bohemians Leary was anxious to turn on so that they would spread his message—and for a short time afterward, Mr. Friedman was as obsessed with psychedelics as Leary, scamming as much psilocybin as he could for “research.”

Mr. Friedman credits psychedelics for giving him the insight and imagination to drop out of the rat race—in his case, an immensely lucrative slot in his family’s real-estate business (his mother was a Uris)—to become a prolific author, most notably of biographies (among his subjects are Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and his friend Jackson Pollock). Though Mr. Friedman stopped using psychedelics, he’s no puritan about these and other drugs. Unlike Leary, Mr. Friedman isn’t a household name, and unlike Leary, he seems a happy old man.

For his account of his trips, he relied on the “session reports” he submitted to Leary, reports written a day or two after each event. Fresh at a distance of 40 years, his descriptions are the most accurate evocations of the psychedelic experience I’ve ever read. They suggest that the sensationalizing of psychedelics (for which we have Timothy Leary to thank), and the criminalization that resulted, is an American tragedy.

Ann Marlowe’s The Book of Trouble: A Romance (Harcourt) was published in February; her first book was How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z (Anchor).